An Old Win, But A New Victory

21 10 2012

I arrive home from National Conference on Friday night filled with thunder, frustration, desperation, and drink.  From the train and then onto the bus from Queen St through to the Southside, I concocted paragraphs in my head, screeds of prose, willing myself home quicker so I could batter away at my poor abused keyboard and pour out the swirling contents of my cranium.  I got home, took off my shoes, then promptly zonked out on the bed.

I’m glad I did.  Conference nowadays is already a heady pressure cooker, 2000+ folk crammed into a medium-sized concert hall and a tent, shuffling around looking for a seat in an overcrowded cafe, snaking past the exhibitors at a pace that prohibits nicking out for a “quick” fag.  Add some free wine from some reception or other, and you can feel the wee-est things becoming irksome.  And the vote and debate on NATO was anything but wee.  I’m glad I’ve had the last 48 hours to unwind a bit, enjoy time (and more drink) with friends new and old, and give the gecks a good clean, before committing my thoughts to a web server.

I voted No to NATO until the bitter end.  By which I mean not only did I back the key amendment which would have maintained party policy, but also voted to reject the motion in its entirety, and to remit the proposal back for proper, in-depth discussion and consultation within the party.  I would do the same if we ever meet as a party to discuss the issue again.  My opinions haven’t changed a bit.  I abide by the constitutional collective decision-making of the SNP, and am bound by the decision taken, as are we all.

What was clear from the result is that the activists voted No to NATO.  A majority of those of us who don’t earn a living from the party backed the amendment.  Every Government minister supported the resolution.  A majority of MSPs did likewise.  My impression (and it is only that)  is that a  majority of the researchers, interns, assistants etc followed the leadership – although a substantial minority did not, in the same way our MSPs contained people with the fortitude of Jamie Hepburn, Rob Gibson, and Sandra White, to name but three.  But the volunteers said no.

It’s the first time our payroll vote has had to be rolled into action.  Iain Macwhirter called the outcome of the NATO debate “The day the SNP lost its innocence”, when we “compromised its principles for the sake of political expediency.”  I think the loss of innocence is wider than the straight-up outcome of a single vote.  We’ve never had a period in our history when so many depend on the party and its apparatus for the means to put food on the table and a roof over their heads.  I joined when we had 3 MPs (shortly to increase by 33% thanks to a by-election win in Perth), 2 MEPs, a couple of hundred councillors and no Holyrood.  There were maybe 20 people employed by MPs, MEPs and the Westminster Group, excluding those at HQ involved in the day-to-day administration of the party machinery.  Shadow Ministers were using annual leave from their day jobs to discharge their political role.  We are in a very different situation now, and you can increase that number around 12-fold as a minimum.  That those bodies were key to Friday’s outcome is unprecedented in the party’s history.

Other parties have been in a similar situation for years.  We haven’t.  Please don’t misconstrue this as a rant against those higher up the pecking order than I.  This is not a case of a bitter loser conjuring up visions of folk threatened with P45s for exercising independent thought.  I can’t and don’t doubt the motives and reasoning behind those who backed the Angus² alliance.  It’s about the numbers of cards counted for and against the proposals.  For the first time, a motion backed by a majority of the rank-and-file delegates, the people who give up their time and effort of their own volition – rather than being contractually obliged to – did not pass Conference.  That is a major change for a movement which has been extra-parliamentary and deeply tied to the concept of a member-led, branch-centered formal decision making process.

Will it lead to mass cancellations of membership?  No.  Will it lead to an outbreak of Maoism across the SNP, researchers and press officers bombarded by rotten tomatoes?  No.  We will move on as a party, concentrating our full energies and resources on the 24 month campaign ahead.  But on Friday, something about the party and its internal mechanics, tedious and boring to the outsider, but a core tenet of our practicality of belief, changed, quite possibly forever.

Time will tell what the implications of that sea-change are.

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13 responses

21 10 2012
Peter A Bell

So glad to have your assurance that this isn’t a case of a bitter loser ranting against the “payroll vote”. Without it one could easily have been fooled into thinking you were accusing people of voting out of self-interest rather than from genuine conviction or a rational assessment of the options. Phew!

21 10 2012
jienotjay

Find me a quote from the above that backs you up. Go on. We lost, I had a drink, I had a night’s sleep, I had a shower, I got up the next day and I watched the FM deliver a good, solid speech and clapped him all the way. Then I spoke to some of my colleagues about YES campaigning in my patch this week, and where we’re canvassing. And BTW Peter, I would recommend anyone reading should have a look at your Twitter account to see ‘bitter’ at its toe-curling worst. Doing the cause no favours at all.

21 10 2012
Peter A Bell

If there was not the possibility of the interpretation I suggested then why did you feel the need for a disclaimer.

As to my Twitter account, you are guilty of creative reading. Whatever bitterness you find is what you have added yourself. Don’t make the daft error of imagining you know a person’s character from 140 characters or less.

And don’t take me for the kind of fool who might fall for the puerile tactic of trying to constrain or shut-down discussion by accusing people of “Doing the cause no favours at all.” No matter how uncomfortable it makes you when others fail to toe your particular line, the independence campaign may have but one message, but it must have many voices.

21 10 2012
jienotjay

I added the disclaimer so as to avoid any possible context-twisting by others as to my motivation and take on things. I obviously made the mistake of not having it in 72-pt bold underline red, but we can’t have everything.

I mentioned Twitter just to let people judge for themselves both of our other tones and comments, so your comment here could be seen as part of the wider context under which your perceive these things.

I don’t think I was trying to constrain your freedom to speech, merely pointing out that in my opinion, your continual personal attacks on folk like Euan McColm – who seems like a decent enough guy to me, though we probably disagree on many things political – don’t exactly serve the promotion of the Yes cause very well. You tweet what you like, and when I feel it’s over-the-top mince, I’ll reserve the right to say so. That’s seems to be the exact opposite of trying to “shut down discussion”.

21 10 2012
Peter A Bell

Talk about “context-twisting”. I did not attack Euan McColm. I challenged the stuff he wrote today about identity politics. I expected some kind of discussion. I was surprised and disappointed by his totally evasive and at times strikingly childish responses.

But it seems he’s not the only one who can’t accept even the gentlest criticism. I had hoped here to have an exchange of views about what the Nato vote says about the SNP and how it may impact the party’s electoral fortunes as well as the independence campaign. Instead, I got a rather petulant tantrum.

Why do you bother enabling comments at all?

21 10 2012
jienotjay

Earlier today you called him a “slavering fool”. It’s for others to judge how constructive that is.

You seem to have missed the entire point of the post. It’s not about NATO as an issue – that’s been decided. I, and my colleagues – paid and unpaid – on the losing side of that debate accept that collective decision and we move on to the referendum. The post is about how the internal dynamic of the party has shifted over the last 15 years or so, from an almost exclusively activist-led base, to one where there is a cadre of people who fulfill a different role. That may be good, bad or neutral, but I think it’s notable enough to chunter on about it a little. If you don’t think so, fair enough. Many would disagree with you though.

21 10 2012
Peter A Bell

I called Euan McColm a slavering fool because he was slavering like a fool. Context is everything.

Your point about the internal dynamic of the SNP having been changed by its electoral success is perfectly valid. I am just not so sure that this has a profound influence on the democratic processes of the party. Because I am not convinced that being on the payroll is enough to significantly change the politics of someone who is only on the payroll because of their politics.

You admit that your assumptions about a clear divide between the volunteers and the payroll is based on no more than an impression. I’m not persuaded that any such division exists in any significant way.

My own impression is that the division was between, on the one side a very few who might be motivated by party loyalty; and, on the other, a somewhat larger minority driven by loyalty to an anti-Nato dogma long held and little examined. In between were a mass of people – delegates and members – who genuinely tried to see both sides of the argument. People who were genuinely torn between the dictates of their conscience and the product of their intellect.

I know how that is, because I am one of them. I can to the issue as one comfortable in his antipathy to Nato. Comfortable enough not to have questioned that antipathy for many, many years. But listening to the arguments I became less and less certain of the unchallengeable righteousness of my position. I came to see that there were genuine and perfectly valid reasons for the policy change – even at some cost in terms of compromise between principle and pragmatism. Such compromise is the stuff of politics, after all.

I see no reason to suppose that the vast majority of those in Perth Concert Hall fidgeting with their voting cards were not similarly conflicted. And no reason to suppose that this did not apply equally to paid and unpaid party activists.

As I said, your point about the party having changed is valid. And in any other party I would have little doubt that the change would have profound implications for the essential nature of the organisation. But I think the SNP is an exception. It is an exception because it has something that other parties do not have. It has a single unifying cause that is not the party itself or political power for its own sake. I think the common commitment to independence is sufficient to overcome the effects of a move to a more professional organisation that concern you..

21 10 2012
jienotjay

You are focusing too much on the employees – i.e. research staff etc. I included them in the analysis for the sake of completeness, but as I say below, I know plenty of case workers etc who voted for the amendment. The Ministers on the other hand, all voted for Angus x2, and the vast bulk of MSPs did as well. But as I said before, this is not really about the ins and outs of the debate itself, or how and why people arrived at their conclusions, it’s about how the decision-making process itself has changed. NATO was just the thing that happened to bring it into focus. It could’ve been anything that may have resulted in a tight-enough vote, with the activists leaning one way and the leadership another.

21 10 2012
lordoftheaisles

You’re absolutely right, of course. People now have jobs, and that colours their opinions and how they vote. Of course it does. To suggset otherwise is naive, although it doesn’t make them bad people. I feel sorry for the activists who feel betrayed but the solution is in their hands via the very democratic processes which the SNP has always espoused.

21 10 2012
jienotjay

I just want to make clear I personally don’t feel betrayed or anything like that, disappointed yes, but I’m not sitting here cursing Parliamentary Assistants or anything like that. Besides which, a lot of them (certainly of my acquaintance) *did* vote for the Hepburn amendment!

21 10 2012
An Old Win, But A New Victory « smallwhitebear

[…] An Old Win, But A New Victory. […]

23 10 2012
SNP trumped… | Edinburgh Eye

[…] evening after the SNP conference, Jonathan Mackie notes: It’s the first time our payroll vote has had to be rolled into action. Iain Macwhirter called […]

28 10 2012
What we learned this week (or, rather, didn’t) « Better Nation

[…] NATO decision at SNP conference was interesting for a few reasons. As Jonathan Mackie pointed out internally this marked the SNP becoming a party where the leadership and the professional part of […]

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